Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian
209 mins. Rated R for pervasive language and strong violence.
IMDb Top 250: #221 (as of 1/2/2020)
It took a long time to make, and it took a long time to watch, but The Irishman has arrived. It’s a weighty tome of a crime epic, and it’s a crazy mixture of classic Scorsese gangster films and more contemplative, thoughtful filmmaking. It’s also, according to Scorsese himself, Cinema. Now let’s just see if it’s as good as I hoped.
Robert De Niro (Raging Bull, Joker) stars as Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman who climbs the ranks of organized crime, making friends but working for himself. Frank gets involved with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, Goodfellas, Love Ranch) of the Bufalino crime family and befriends Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, Serpico, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood), a teamster with connections to illegal activity. Now, Frank, as an old man, reflects on the countless acts that raised him higher in the world of organized crime and, perhaps, why he’s so alone now.
The first and most notable strength of The Irishman is in its performances. There’s not a single squeaky wheel in the whole production, but specifically the three leads are giving truly strong, as expected, performances. There’s a level of restraint to each of them, specifically De Niro’s quiet, contemplative Frank. Frank consistently makes the decision to put his responsibilities to his work above most of his friends and all of his family, and De Niro capably performs each of these periods of Frank’s life with ease.
Al Pacino’s take on Jimmy Hoffa is more restrained than the usual Pacino performances (with all due respect), but he plays Hoffa’s arrogance with precision. Pacino does a whole lot with a smaller amount of screen time. Jimmy Hoffa has been played by several major actors, and Pacino provides another unique and worthwhile take on the teamster.
The most surprising turn of the lead actors is Joe Pesci’s triumphant return to the screen with Russell Bufalino. Pesci has been off the acting tree for the last decade, and I don’t recall seeing him in a movie since The Good Shepherd. Does Pesci seem like he’s been missing from acting? No, not at all! He’s incredible, and he’s so subdued. I think that’s why he’s so good here as well. In so many appearances, Joe Pesci is the loud one, the violent one, but here, he’s quiet, he’s thoughtful, and he’s engaging.
This is Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story) at his most contemplative. He’s using new themes like mortality and blending them with his mobster morality to create something we haven’t seen within the shell of something familiar. This is why we keep seeing characters popping up with their date and cause of death. We begin to see that, like with most people, his circle of friends, family, and confidantes gets smaller, but that becomes more accelerated due to his choice of work. It’s a sadder film, and it’s a film that Scorsese couldn’t have made even ten years ago.
The Irishman is not perfect, though, and its cardinal problem is its pacing. It doesn’t bother me that the film is long, but there are pacing issues that plague that lengthy run time. It didn’t sustain a speed to match the length. It sustained my interest, but not in the way that Scorsese’s have done before.
I also believe that the film does not showcase its aging technology as perfectly as I had hoped. There are moments that look incredible, and then certain shots and sequences in the film do not work at all. I don’t mind that Frank seems to move like he’s an older gentleman throughout his entire life, but some of it looked like plastic. Not enough to ruin the film, but it is noticeable enough to remind you that it’s there.
The Irishman isn’t a traditional epic in every sense, but it mostly works. It’s a view of an aging mobster seen through the eyes of an aging filmmaker, and it’s reflective and quiet and contemplative. It’s an incredible story and film, one worth its run time, one that I cannot wait to watch again.
-Kyle A. Goethe